A lyric Voice by Ilya Kaminsky

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A Lyric Voice
by Ilya Kaminsky

When a great singer sings, the skin of space and of time go taut, there is no corner left of silence or of innocence, the gown of life is turned inside out, the singer becomes earth and sky, time past and time to come are singing one of the songs of a single life.

--John Bergeri

And if the song’s in search of earth, and if the song’s

Ensouled, then everything vanishes

To void, and the stars by which it’s known,

And the voice that lets it all be and be gone.

--Osip Mandelstam

“I have no manuscripts, no notebooks, no archives,” wrote Osip Mandelstam, “I have no handwriting because I never write. I alone in Russia work from the voice, while all around the wolf-bitch of pack writers. What the hell kind of writer am I!? Get out, you fools!”ii

To introduce this voice, one must first ask what is a lyric poet, and what is a lyric impulse. A lyric poet is a self-professed “instrument” of language who changes that language. And a lyric impulse? Here is Marina Tsvetaeva, a contemporary of Mandelstam’s:

My difficulty (in writing poems -- and perhaps other people's difficulty in understanding them) is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan:  nnh--nnh--nnh.  To express a sound using words, using meanings.  So that the only thing left in the ears would be nnh-nnh-nnh.iii


January 3rd, 1891, Warsaw. To Emil and Flora Mandelstam, a boy is born.

My father had absolutely no language; his speech was tongue-tie and languagelessness. The Russian speech of a Polish Jew? No. The speech of a German Jew? No again. Perhaps a special Kurland accent? I never heard such…speech…where normal words are intertwined with ancient philosophical terms of Herder, Leibnitz, and Spinoza, the capricious syntax of a talmudist, the artificial not always finished sentence: it was anything in the world, but not a language, neither Russian nor German.iv

The impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan:  nnh--nnh--nnh.  To express a sound using words, using meanings. 


When as a boy Osip Mandelstam brought his poems to a venerable journal of that time, the editor observed:

Mandelstam did not feel the Russian language as his own; he observed it lovingly as if from a distance, finding its beauty…listening into it, flaming from mysterious victories over it. . . . The Russian language itself was beginning to sound anew.v
I bring these testimonies not because they have to do with Mandelstam’s father—and, to some extent, with the poet himself—being a non-native speaker of the Russian language. I bring them because I believe that no great lyric poet ever speaks in the so-called “proper” language of his or her time. Emily Dickinson didn’t write in “proper” English grammar but in slant music of fragmentary perception. Half a world and half a century away, Cesar Vallejo placed three dots in the middle of the line, as if language itself were not enough, as if the poet’s voice needed to leap from one image to another, to make—to use Eliot’s phrase—a raid on the inarticulate. Paul Celan wrote to his wife from Germany, where he briefly visited from his voluntary exile in France: “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here, or anywhere.”

But how to show this privacy of Mandelstam’s Russian language while we discuss him in English? What is an English equivalent for the this: “Voronezh; / Uronish ty menya il’ provoronish, / Ne veronish menya ili vernesh, / Voronezh – blazh, Voronezh – voron, nosh.” Reading these aloud, we cannot help but recall Gerard Manley Hopkins. The comparison with Hopkins also brings to mind Louise Bogan’s claim that “many effects in Hopkins which we think of as triumphs of ‘modern’ compression are actually models of Greek compression, as transformed into English verse.” Substitute “Russian” for “English,” and she comes close to describing Mandelstam. Here is what Mandelstam’s Greek instructor remembers:

He would be monstrously late for our lessons and completely shaken by the secrets of Greek grammar that had been revealed to him. He would wave his hands, run about the room and declaim the declensions and conjugations in a sing-song voice. The reading of Homer was transformed into a fabulous event; adverbs, enclitics, and pronouns hounded him in his sleep, and he entered into enigmatic personal relationships with them… He arrived at the next day with a guilty smile and said, “I haven’t prepared anything, but I’ve written a poem.” And without taking off his overcoat, he began to recite…He transformed grammar into poetry and declared that the more incomprehensible Homer was, the more beautiful…Mandelstam did not learn Greek, he intuited it.”vi

He intuited it. From the inarticulate comes the new harmony. The lyric poet wakes up the language; the speech is revealed to us in a new, unexpected syntax, in music, in ways of organizing the silences in the mouth. “You have no idea what kind of trash poetry comes from,” Anna Akhmatova wrote of her own process. From the very beginning of his literary life, the readers of Mandelstam saw his ability to remake the Russian language. They said he saw Russia with a stranger’s eyes. They said he wrote of an “imagined Russia.”vii They said, sometimes disparagingly, that he was lost in his “own language, his own Russian Latin.viii But you could say this about any great lyric poet.


A few years after Osip’s birth, in 1897, the Mandelstams move to St. Petersburg, where Osip’s mother, Flora Osipovna, has “an almost manic needix” for relocating from one apartment to another. One wonders how this movement affected the poet, who later traveled all over the Soviet Union, as if possessed, from Moscow to Kiev to Armenia to the Crimea, looking for a home, an apartment, a room—and yet when the apartment was finally granted to him, later in life, no peace came:

I have lost my way in the sky—now, where?

Mandelstam’s life is full of dualities, arguments, contradictions. A Jew born in Poland, he was Russian poetry’s central figure in the twentieth century. A Modernist, he openly defended strict classical forms. He wrote in rich, formal verse structures. Then sometimes he didn’t. He rarely titled his poems. Sometimes he did. He kept more than one version of the same lyric, and sometimes inserted the same stanza into different poems. He composed aloud and recited to his wife, who wrote the poems down. Mandelstam was Russia’s “most civilized poet,” “a child of Europe,”x yet he found his “fullest breath”xi not in worldly European capitals but in exile in provincial town of Voronezh.

Perhaps such duality and contradiction, too, lie at the heart of a modern poet’s lyric impulse, which brings together the rawest opposites to produce that “divine harmony.” But what is a lyric impulse in a time of war and revolution? Is it an individual voice? Could this voice speak for the nation? Can one person’s voice speak of the epic events of his time? Can, indeed, those events be channeled through the lyric voice?
In all this ocean of new rooms and suitcases, perhaps the only island was a bookshelf:

The bookcase of early childhood is a person’s lifetime companion. The disposition of its shelves, the selection of books, the color of the spines is perceived as the color, height, disposition of world literature itself.xii

Or perhaps the island is the city itself. St. Petersburg, Petrograd, Piter, Leningrad—

this “brother, Petropolis,” the dying city, the city as a ship, the Flying Dutchman, around which his mother moves her furniture from one building to another, a city where he is brought as a Jew, the capital of the vast Slav empire, here he writes his poetry, later to be called “Petersburgian,” though he has defined the city as much as it him:

You, with square windows,

Squat houses in rows,

Hello gentle,

Hello winter,

Petersburg, Petersburg,

A thousand hellos.


What year is it? 1911. Mandelstam publishes his first poem. In St. Petersburg a group of young poets form “The Guild of Poets,” naming themselves “craftsmen of the word.” Nikolai Gumilyov is the “Master” of this guild. His wife, Anna Akhmatova, is “secretary.” Mandelshtam becomes the Guild’s “first violin.”xiii

They call Shakespeare, Villon, and Rabelais their mentors, suggesting that Western European, not Russian, culture is their north star. As time will show, little unites their poetry except for a shared aim at precision. Mandelstam:

Everything has become heavier and more massive; thus man must become harder, for he must be the hardest thing on earth; he must be to the earth what the diamond is to glass.

In 1912 they call themselves Acmeists.

Like St. Petersburg itself, Acmeism is a longing for clarity of architecture, is a jump from darkness (of national poverty, of ignorance) that surrounds it, is—as Mandelstam famously said—“a nostalgia for world culture.” Their opponents? The Symbolists. Yes, it is the old question of fathers and sons—Gippus, a leading Symbolist poet, was Mandelstam’s grade school teacher. Symbolists believed that the visible here-and-now was illusory and that everything is in any case fated to shatter or decompose—a prospect that filled them with fearful presentiment. In this world of visions, the language is blurred. Opposed to this, Acmeists demand “classical” precision of language, formal elegance:

One often hears: “That’s fine and good, but it’s yesterday.” But I say: Yesterday has not yet been born. In reality, it hasn’t even taken place yet. I want Ovid, Pushkin and Catullus all over again—I am not satisfied with the historical Ovid, Pushkin and Catullus.xiv
Mandelstam’s first book—called Stone—appears in 1913. He is 23. The Great War is about to begin. In three years he will meet Marina Tsvetaeva. In four years the Russian empire will fall.

And, what happens around this little bubble in St. Petersburg, this little café where young poets meet, the Stray Dog? In Russia, Chagall is emerging as a painter, Rachmaninov and Stravinsky are changing music, Stanislavski and Meyerhold are revolutionizing theater, Diaghilev is changing the classical Russian ballet.

And, abroad, in France, Apollinaire, inspired by Whitman, is leading the same revolt against the French Symbolists. Pound is swashbuckling through the tradition, taking what he wants and throwing out what he doesn’t.

Yet, a comparison with Pound or Apollinaire is misleading. Both French and American bards come on the heels of centuries of poetic tradition. Mandelstam and his generation are the poets of the Silver age of Russian literature. Pushkin, the father of the Russian poetic tradition, was the Golden Age.xv And Pushkin died only a few decades before them.

And what was before Pushkin?

Russia long remained alien to Europe. Accepting the light of Christianity from Byzantium she participated in neither the political upheavals nor the intellectual activity of the Roman Catholic world. The great epoch of Renaissance had no influence on her…[Enslaved by Tatars] for two dark centuries only clergy preserved the pale sparks of Byzantine learning…But the inner life of the enslaved people did not develop. The Tatars did not resemble the Moors. Having conquered Russia they did not give it algebra nor Aristotle.xvi
Russia had no history, said Chaadaev, the nineteenth-century public intellectual who left Russia and was either brave (or crazy) enough to return. But when Chaadaev declared this, he had overlooked language. Russia had no history and no literature, but it had its language. And soon enough Chaadaev’s contemporaries, Pushkin and Gogol among them, began to develop one of Europe’s youngest—and fieriest—literary traditions.

This astonishing youth of the Russian poetic tradition is the true reason for Mandelstam’s generation’s “nostalgia for world culture.” While Westerners such as Pound were looking elsewhere to remake the poetry of their time, the Russians, surrounded by the darkness of centuries devoid of literature, looked to classics of other languages to create their country’s poetic line. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were able to write epics as late as the last half of the nineteenth century because there were no great epics in the language before them. Creating classics was a modern project for the Russians: it had the urgency of the time. Mandelstam:

Classical poetry is perceived as that which ought to be, not that which has already been…Contemporary poetry…is naïve….Classical poetry is the poetry of revolution.”xvii


1917. At the height of the Revolution Mandelstam, without much money,

having by some miracle got a room in the Astoria [the most elegant hotel in St. Petersburg], took a tub bath several times each day, drank the milk that had been left at his door by mistake, and lunched at the Donon, where the proprietor, out of his mind, extended credit to everyone.xviii
What is an image of a lyric poet in the days of the Revolution? A young man taking baths several times each day and drinking milk while bombs explode outside his hotel room?
In a few months his best friend, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, will be shot. Mandelstam will run from city to city for several years during the Civil War that follows the Revolution. He is imprisoned many times: Reds think that he (an intellectual) is a spy sent by the White Army; Whites think that he (a Jew) is one of the Communists.

In those days, “Mandelstam was always ardent and always hungry, but as everyone was hungry at the time, I should have said even hungrier than other people. Once he called on us wearing a raincoat and nothing else.”xix


1919. Kiev. He marries Nadezhda. From this date until 1938 they are never apart. For years he and his new wife will walk through the ruins of an empire, like a modern Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

What are facts?

After the Revolution he applies to Gorky (through the Union of Poets) for a sweater and a pair of trousers; Gorky refused the trousers.xx


Antonio Machado suggested: “In order to write poetry, you must first invent a poet who will write it.” Whether Mandelstam was inventing himself, or being forged by the pressure of his times, one thing is obvious: some of the best writing comes in his darkest personal hours: hunger in Crimea, the restless life in Moscow, exile in Voronezh. “Restlessness was the first sign,” Nadzhda wrote,

that he was working on something and the second was the moving of his lips… His head was twisted around so that his chin almost touched his shoulder; he was twirling his walking stick with one hand and resting the other on one of the stone steps to keep his balance…When he was “composing” he always hand a great need of movement. He either paced the room or kept going outside to walk the streets.”xxi
And his view of the poetic vocation? Perhaps not surprisingly, it is rather close to that of his contemporary, W.H. Auden:

Whatever its actual content and over interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, amuse, instruct—it may express every possible shade of emotion, and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.xxii


What is around him? The Russian Empire is now the land of Five Year Plans, with political purges, kholkhozes, starvation in the Ukraine (where he and Nadezhda were married). He is working at a journal, he writes children’s books, he translates. He is falsely accused of stealing another’s translation, and there follows an ugly public trial. He slaps the face of Alexei Tolstoy, the red count, the venerable novelist of that day. A scandal.

He asks the secretary at Litfond (a financial foundation for supporting Soviet writers) about the costs of a coffin. Why? He doesn’t want a coffin of his own; when he dies they can bury him without one. A scandal. He wants to be paid for his death up front.


Why repeat these anecdotes? I live for two things in life (said Akhmatova): gossip and metaphysics.


We tell these stories because we want an answer to the question: what is the lyric poet’s response to the epic events of his time? Here is Mandelstam’s friend, Ilya Ehrenburg: “Poets greeted the Russian Revolution with wild shouts, hysterical tears, laments, enthusiastic frenzy, curses.” Mandelstam “alone understood the pathos of the events, comprehended the scale of what was occurring.” Brodsky: “[Mandelshtam’s was] perhaps the only sober response to the events which shook the world…His sense of measure and his irony were enough to acknowledge the epic quality of the whole undertaking.”

Is this the same man who was drinking milk in the bath of the expensive hotel while around him the city exploded? We can’t resolve his contradictions, but perhaps noting them can give us one way to speak about his lyric impulse.

Most 20th century Russian readers would argue that the poet, any poet, does have a moral responsibility to his people. In that country, as a saying goes, a poet is a great deal more than just a poet. In pre-fifth-century Greece, “the poet was still the undisputed leader of his people….The Greeks always felt that a poet was in the broadest and deepest sense the educator of his people”xxiii Many a Russian poet shared this feeling during the first twenty years of the twentieth century.

But what does it mean to speak for one’s people? And, just who are one’s people?


When the government demands poems about collective farms, he writes about Greek myths. Later, when they demand patriotic songs for the working class, he writes an ode to “my necrotic, psychotic age.” “I want to spit in the face of every writer who first obtains permission and then writes,” he says. “I want to beat such writers over the head with a stick…..placing a glass of police tea before each one.” And thereby speaks for his people. In one single human’s voice. In a tone that is direct enough, playful enough, to be understood by his people’s ears.

He wrote:

An heroic era has opened in the life of the word. The word is flesh and bread. It shares the fate of bread and flesh: suffering. People are hungry. The state is even hungrier. But there is something hungrier yet: time.

Such is a lyric poet’s relationship to his time. He is both inside and outside of it; he suffers its immediate circumstances in the context of centuries. The noise of time—the title of his prose memoir—can also be translated as the hum of time, and humming was a part of this poet’s writing process—almost as if the very substance of time were transformed within him, by means of him. “For an artist,” Mandelstam wrote, “a worldview is a tool or a means, like a hammer in the hands of a mason, and the only reality is the work of art itself.”


While Akhmatova, in her Requiem, wrote what is probably the only lasting epic cycle of that time, Mandelstam offers us something entirely different: a voice singing outside of the people, a voice laughing and cursing, praising, asking for a Reader! Adviser! Doctor! and waiting for the arrest, and jumping from the second story window out of desperation, and asking a friend in the street for cash. It isn’t the voice of a country, it is the voice of one human, a voice so naked in its feeling and rich in its music that it could be spoken by anyone:

I have lost my way in the sky—now, where?


Why speak of him in quotations. Why fragments? “Destroy your manuscript,” he wrote, “but save whatever you have written in the margins.”xxiv

Scholars rarely speak about the radical changes in his poetics over the years. Beckett, they say, decided to write in French because his English was getting “too good,” too poetic.

And Mandelstam? He begins as a shy Jewish boy writing in a voice of high culture with numerous references to Homer, Ovid, and ends, in 1930s with lyrics that often explore low styles, are able to be surreal and down-to-earth at the same time. It is as if Tennynson suddenly began to write in a style of Emily Dickinson.


Not long before this he reads his epigram to Stalin (“We Live”) to a few friends, one of whom is the informer. What are facts? Exile. Where he jumps from that window. A new exile, Voronezh. Where he writes his best poems. Return.

He was a “Holy Fool,” a iurodivyi of seventeeth-century Russia, a “bird of God” (he loved swallows and identified himself with the goldfinch); he was one of those imitators of Christ, God’s fools, who were during Russia’s times of troubles alone privileged to criticize the State. Like Ovid, he was an exile dreaming of Rome; like Dante, he wrote poems to “the measure and rhythm of walking.” All poets were exiles, “for to speak means to be forever on the road.”xxv
Yet another exile: Death in the camp. Unmarked grave.


And poems? After his death his poems were memorized by his wife and a few friends. They didn’t keep originals in a written form. They wrote poems from memory, burned the paper, wrote poems from memory, burned the paper, wrote poems from memory, burned the paper. This continued for some decades.

What are we to do with it, this voice, in another language?

Here, listen, again, to these lines:

Pusti menya, otdai menya, Voronezh;

Uronish ty menya il’ provoronish,

Te veronish menya ili vernesh,

Voronezh – blazh, Voronezh – voron, nosh.


And, again:

Pusti menya, otdai menya, Voronezh;

Uronish ty menya il’ provoronish,

Te veronish menya ili vernesh,

Voronezh – blazh, Voronezh – voron, nosh.

You don’t understand? He, too, once, heard a language he didn’t speak:

I experienced such joy in pronouncing sounds forbidden to Russian lips, mysterious sounds, outcast sounds, and perhaps, at some deeper level, even shameful sounds. There was some magnificent boiling water in a tin teapot, and suddenly a pinch of marvelous black tea was tossed into it. That’s how I felt about the Armenian language.

And, another poet said: “The language with which I make my poems has nothing to do with one spoken here, or anywhere.”
Another poet said: “my difficulty (in writing poems -- and perhaps other people's difficulty in understanding them) is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan:  nnh--nnh--nnh.  To express a sound using words, using meanings.  So that the only thing left in the ears would be nnh-nnh-nnh.”
I have lost my way in the sky—now, where?

i John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

ii Mandelstam, Fourth Prose

iii Marina Tsvetaeva, "Writing books and notebooks," September 1940, tr. Jean Valentine and Ilya Kaminsky

iv Prose of Osip Mandelstam, Brown tr, p. 90

v Sergei Makovskii, Portraits of Contemporaries (Portrety Sovremenikov), New York, Chekhov Publishers, 1955, p377-398

vi Konstantin Mochulsky, Vstrecha, 2, (1945), 30-1

vii Vladimir Markov

viii Brown, Osip Mandelstam

ix Evgeny Mandelstam, Vospominaniya, p. 125.

x George Ivask’s statement

xi Akhmatova’s statement

xii Mandelstam, Noise of Time

xiii Akhmatova’s phrase

xiv Mandelstam, Slovo I Kultura, 203

xv Three well known poets before Pushkin—Lomonosov, Trediakovsky and Derzhavin—are universally accepted as minor, compared to Pushkin. The beautiful, and very moving early epic, Lay of Igor’s Campaign, is only available in a 19th century copy; a number of scholars argue that it was actually written in the 19th century.

xvi Critical Prose of Alexander Pushkin, edited and translated by Carl Proffer, Indiana University Press

xvii Mandelstam, Slovo I Kultura

xviii Artur Lourie, VP, III (1963)

xix Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft, Retrospectives and Conclusions (New York, 1969), p237

xx Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, p. 63

xxi Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, p. 186

xxii “Making, Knowing, and Judging,” W.H. Auden

xxiii Jager, Paideia, p35

xxiv Brown, The Prose of Mandelstam, p187

xxv Sydney Monas, Collected Poems of Osip Mandelstam

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